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Wild horses pose cultural dilemma for Navajo nation

As if the politics of the West’s wild horses wasn’t confused and conflicted enough, the Navajo Nation is riding into the issue with a surprise move that could shift the balance of the protracted battle.

Like many Native American tribes, the Navajo revere their relationship with the horse. They sing its praises and speak of having great respect for its place in their cultural heritage.

Now they’re rounding some of them up on the Arizona reservation and shipping them to a Mexican slaughterhouse. In fact, they’re pushing to shorten the shipping distance by having the animals, ahem, processed at a New Mexico facility.

The Navajo are willing to have their four-legged friends turned to dog food?

If that doesn’t rattle the perception politics of this contentious issue, nothing does.

Here’s the Navajos’ very real problem: Although its 27,425-square-mile land covers parts of three states and is the largest of any Native American tribe, it estimates 75,000 wild horses roam there and cause all manner of destruction, including eating precious grassland and destroying water holes.

Navajo spokesman Emy Zah recently told the Associated Press, “It’s a sensitive subject to begin with because horses are considered sacred animals, so you just can’t go out and euthanize them. That would go too far against cultural conditions. At the same time, we have a bunch of horses no one is caring for, so it’s a delicate balance.”

Talk about having a gift for understatement.

The news coming from the Navajo Nation emerged just days after wild horse activists, including former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and actor Robert Redford, expressed their views that the animals needed to be better protected, in part because of their cultural value to Native Americans. In fact, they said they were “standing with Native American leaders” on the issue.

But now it’s obvious that not all Native American leaders are standing with the wild horse activists.

This move isn’t unique to the Navajo Nation. Other Native American tribes have either begun their roundups or are considering doing so. Various media outlets report that the National Congress of American Indians, the Yakima Nation in Washington state, the South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux Tribe, and New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Nation all concur with the Navajo in support of issuing the horse slaughter permits.

Although the horses have been federally protected for years, horse slaughter was only banned in 2006. That ban was lifted in 2011 and has been a subject of legal battles since.

Last month, Navajo president Ben Shelly endorsed a letter to federal officials supporting a New Mexico company’s plan to practice horse slaughter and export the meat. The Valley Meat Co. is located in Roswell. The tribe is rounding up and selling the horses, and according to published reports the New Mexico slaughterhouse is a more economically feasible location. The tribe’s horses have been ending up at a slaughter facility in Mexico.

The Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights organizations are attempting to halt the equine executions in New Mexico through litigation. The news from Navajo surely makes their argument harder to make, at least in the court of public opinion.

Nevada is home to the nation’s largest population of wild horses. Through the years, ranchers with generations-long ties to the land have been widely criticized for calling for similar roundups.

But if Native American tribal leaders can decide it’s an appropriate and necessary method to not only thin proliferating herds but also to preserve endangered land, it seems to substantially only confirm the Nevada ranchers’ long-held argument.

It also further complicates the politics of an already contentious issue.


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